Toxic Beauty is a beautifully crafted, informative and truly terrifyingly raw documentary film by CSA-award winning director Phyllis Ellis, and Emmy award-winning producer Peter Raymont, of White Pine Pictures. Toxic Beauty, is a feature film, that weaves archival footage, personal stories, and facts about what is really in our products and the shocking truth that we should not rely on brands to ensure our safety.
Toxic Beauty, follows a whistleblower, her lawyer, scientists, cancer survivors and those who have lost their lives from using cosmetics. Toxic Beauty, exposes the hard truths about dangerous, unregulated chemicals, toxins and carcinogens in cosmetics and care products.
CLEARlife had the opportunity to do a Q&A with the filmmaker Ellis and Dr. Ami Zota, one of the experts participating in the film.
CHARLOTTE CARSON What inspired you to cover this subject matter?
PHYLLIS ELLIS I am an Olympian and while researching the documentary 2/12 years ago, I became aware of the talc story and ovarian cancer. I had used Baby Powder several times a day for a number of years. Then I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Daniel Cramer whose original study in 1982, causally linking talc and ovarian, sparked years of research. I became concerned. I thought about a few women who I played with who had died of ovarian cancer, I had stopped using it, but had they. And then if the most trusted brand in the world, was linked to cancer, what else were we using every day that could possibly cause us harm. That sent our team on this journey.
CC Why is clean beauty specifically important to you?
PE I guess I find the two words together interesting. Dr. Roberta Ness, who is an epidemiologist in the film said “We have a right to know, what is known.” Now that I know what is in many cosmetics and care products, it’s important to me to make choices of what I use based on that. It’s also important because I have a daughter and son who I want to make healthy decisions about the products they use.
CC What does the word beauty mean to you? And when associated with the phrase “beauty products”?
PE That’s a great question because I’ve asked myself many times over the course of the film. Beauty is subjective and the idea of it, in the main, objectifying women and of course men as well. Somehow there is a measurement to Beauty, and then a comparison to others around the word rather than it being something we each individually define in ourselves. Advertising doesn’t allow us to.
Beauty products – hmm. What does that mean? Products that make us beautiful because we are not beautiful enough whether it’s smell beautiful enough or look young and beautiful or smooth and beautiful or our hair isn’t as beautiful or and or.
But I’m also not against anyone using anything that they choose however, now that we know, we can make better decisions within our own framework of beauty.
CC How did you raise funds for the project?
PE This is a Canadian film and we have a supportive system to finance films. It started with a broadcast licence from the documentary Channel and that triggers many other opportunities for financing. Also, executive producer, Peter Raymont, raised private financing. It’s a combination of broadcaster, film funds and private financing.
CC Where will the film be shown?
PE The film at present has world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian Documentary Film Festival in Toronto and it’s been chosen as one of the 5 Big Idea films at the festival. We are all very proud to have been chosen. Then we screen at DOXA in Vancouver. We’ll have a theatrical release and we will broadcast on the documentary channel. The film has a distributor so I’m sure the film will have many opportunities to be screened both at festivals and broadcast opportunities.
CC How long did it take to make the film?
PE It took almost 3 years to make this film from concept to delivery.
CC Why did you want to get involved in the film?
AMI ZOTA I thought this film presented a good opportunity to educate a broader audience about chemical hazards in cosmetics and the lack of oversight and regulation of the cosmetics industry.
CC Despite cold hard evidence, cosmetic and personal care companies are continuing to produce the same toxic substances. Why do you think the company refuses to adapt a new formula or take this product off the market with this a known fact now?
AZ It is important to note that not all substances used in cosmetics are toxins or hazardous, but some ingredients are, especially when used in and around the body. The problem is that because most ingredients have not been adequately tested for health and safety concerns, there is a lot we don’t know. I can’t speak to the motivation of individual companies or how they make decisions.
CC What do you think needs to happen for the industry to evolve more acceptable safety standards?
AZ We need greater disclosure of the ingredients that are in our cosmetics including the fragrances used in cosmetics, which is often a mixture of many different chemicals. Following the practices of Canada and the European Union, we need to restrict or ban the use of certain substances in cosmetics such as asbestos and formaldehyde. Lastly, we need to create financial incentives for companies to develop safer alternatives.
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CC Some beauty products can affect pregnancy. Can you speak to this?
AZ Pregnancy is a vulnerable period of exposure to toxic chemicals both for the pregnant woman and her developing fetus. Beauty products contain multiple chemicals, such as formaldehyde, phthalates, parabens, lead, mercury, triclosan, and benzophenone, that can adversely impact health. Exposure to 1 of these chemicals has been linked to endocrine disruption, cancer, reproductive harm, and impaired neurodevelopment in children
CC Do you use all safe products? What products do you use?
PE I cleaned out most of my products both cosmetics and house hold cleaning products. Coconut oil, baking soda, lemon. I bought a few RMS make up products because I had the chance to spend some time with Rose-Marie Swift when we were shooting. I’m researching products now trying to find the best alternatives to the products I was using. I don’t wear a lot of makeup so it wasn’t that traumatic.
CC What have been recent triumphs? What are the setbacks?
AZ Recent triumphs include developing market leadership around safer beauty products. Certain retail companies have committed to phasing out priority chemicals from the products they distribute and their supply chains. Additionally, certain states such as California and New York have passed “right to know” disclosure laws mandating companies to provide more information about the chemical ingredients in cleaning products and professional beauty salon products. One major setback was the failure to pass federal legislative reform of the personal care products act in the United States.
CC What about products that are preservative-free? Is that a good thing?
AZ It depends. Many preservatives such as parabens and formaldehyde may pose health risks. If a product does not contain preservatives, it may have a shorter shelf life.
CC What’s next for you after Toxic Beauty?
PE I have a film I am shooting about athletes’ rights/women in sport and then I am going to do some writing. Films take several years of your life and after my next documentary, I may take a little bit of a break.
*Director, Phyllis Ellis is a creator, writer, director, producer and performer in factual and scripted televisionand film. She was honored at the 2013 Canadian Screen Awards with the prestigious Donald Brittain Award for Best Social/Political Documentary for About Her, narrated by Kim Cattrall. Ellis has been nominated for 7 Gemini Awards/CSA’s with 3 wins. Most recently she was nominated for CSA Best Direction for Girls’ Night Out and her feature documentary Painted Land was nominated for the DGC’s Allan King Award in 2016. Ellis premiered two dramatic feature films at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.
Ellis has produced, written and developed over 30 documentaries, scripted and factual TV series, for CTV, Corus, The Scripps Network, Sundance Channel, Independent Film Channel, Vision, APTN and the CBC.
*White Pine Pictures is an independent Canadian film, television, and new media production company based in Toronto, Canada. Headed by award-winning filmmaker, Peter Raymont,the company has produced over 100 films, including the Emmy award-winning feature documentary Shake Hands With The Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire , two Oscar-shortlisted features: A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman , and Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould . White Pine is also the producer of the award-winning TV drama series The Border (38 episodes), and Cracked (21 episodes) created for the CBC and sold worldwide including France, Germany, and the USA.